Saina (2021) Review!!!

Synopsis – The story of Saina Nehwal, a professional badminton player who ranked number 1 in the sport.

My Take – Sport biopics are no doubt tricky to make, especially when they are based on household names. Mainly as we already know the trajectory the story will take, hence, apart from an urgent and intense narrative, the film also requires an authentic and genuine portray of the said sport to bring investment even from the most ignorant member of the audience to be considered a winner.

While I am not acquainted with the sport of badminton or have followed any recent developments with the game, like most Indians, I do know of Saina Nehwal, on whom this latest biopic is made. After all she is the only Indian badminton player (male or female) to win 24 individual titles and a reigning national champion who in 2015 attained the world No 1 ranking, becoming the only female player from India and overall the second Indian player after Prakash Padukone to achieve this feat. She has represented India three times in the Olympics, winning a bronze medal in her second stint.

But when we go in to watch a biopic of a supremely admired star you also want to see an aspect of her life that we aren’t privy to, or slowly be allowed to peel the layers and get as close as we can to the person behind the grand cutout. Unfortunately, director and co-writer Amole Gupte’s film, despite its moments, falls short of being able to essay the life of this great champion, making it a film full of inspiration but minimum significance.

The narrative expectedly runs high on emotions all through its 135 minutes and yet, strangely, many high points of drama in her life are glossed over. As an audience we don’t mind the very professionally shot match and training montages, but when we meet our champion off court we realize we still know very little of the real person. Hence it is disconcerting that at crucial places where the film could have beautifully delved into an unexplored perspective it is just too scared to go there and sometimes even seems disinterested.

Unlike director Gupte‘s other films, the film lacks an engaging subtext beyond the entertainment quotient that Saina Nehwal‘s life lends to, and like many other Hindi language biopics prefers to stay one-dimensional in storytelling.

Tracking her life from childhood up to 2015, the story follows Saina (Parineeti Chopra), who after overcoming a slump and injury breaks has just been anointed the World No.1 position, after her latest win. Finding herself at a press conference, between an arrays of questions from enthusiastic sports journalists, Saina begins to delve into her life, which brought her to his very moment. Beginning with her equation with the mother, Usha Rani Nehwal (Meghna Malik), during her early days at the institute, followed by the relationship she shares with Kashyap (Eshan Naqvi), and her friction with former All-England Open champion and her coach, Sarvadhamaan Rajan (Manav Kaul). All as she goes through some extreme highs in her career to sudden and unexpected lows which she thought she would never face.

Though the film is constantly engaging it is highly predictable even for the viewers who don’t know much about Saina Nehwal’s achievements. As director Gupte gives the film a linear narrative bookended in a sense by a press conference. Though the inspiring journey, featuring certain financial hardship and tremendous personal heartbreak, is effectively conveyed, some might feel that the journey of her climbing up the ladder in the first half has been rather rushed through. Especially the part which was supposed to her highlight her childhood interest in the game, and her equation with her mother, a former state-level badminton player.

Though she is her driving force, at one point her mother’s expectations and support become threateningly stifling and the film registers this but cuts the strain abruptly. We are never allowed to explore this fascinating relationship, where helping someone push their limits can also push them to a frightening brink.

The coach is also an important character, renamed Sarvadhamaan Rajan. Gopichand’s role in Nehwal’s rise, their split, rumors that she felt he was paying more attention to P.V. Sindhu, her triumphs without him and their reunion are widely known, and so the decision to rechristen him in the film is inexplicable. It is especially odd since there is nothing overtly defamatory in the screenplay, though the intent of certain actions he takes in the second half are not well established, and one is confused taking his behavior towards the protagonist later in the film.

Where the film truly comes into its own is when it focuses on the drills she took to keep away from the injuries in the tough sport by any standard, where the level of fitness and the energy level has to be on the high quotient for the aspirant to reach the pinnacle, and badminton matches which are chronicled with the same energy as live telecasts of actual events.

This then is not a comprehensive biography of a sports superstar, but one that brushes inconvenient truths about her under the carpet and is not as socio-politically aware as one might expect from the choice of theme. Still, for those who have not tracked Nehwal’s life too closely, this is a potentially motivating film, entertaining if for no other reason than those well-produced matches in which Chopra’s involvement in the game is bolstered by Piyush Shah’s excellent camerawork and Manas Choudhury’s sound design. Coming to the performances.

Even as you wondered if Parineeti Chopra was the apt choice to have replaced the original Shraddha Kapoor, the actress proves you wrong in every frame and in every sense of the term. Here, Chopra gets a role that offer her both breadth and width, and she rises to the challenge. The actress plays down her naturally vivacious personality and sparkling eyes for the not-so-showy character she plays here. Most impressively, she gets the body language of a sportsperson right and actually looks the part on court. In other roles, Meghna Malik vociferously playing the mother with a strong Haryanvi accent is a dominating presence, while Shubrojyoti Barat is endearing as the quietly supportive and always-smiling father.

Manav Kaul as her badminton coach manages to leave a mark, though his character could have been written better. Eshan Naqvi manages to do justice to his respective character of a friend turned husband. On the whole, ‘Saina’ is a well-intentioned yet predictable biopic which will appeal only to Saina Nehwal and Parineeti Chopra fans.

Directed – Amole Gupte

Starring – Rohan Apte, Shubhrajyoti Barat, Parineeti Chopra

Rated – PG

Run Time – 135 minutes

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